Thursday, February 01, 2007

Subtile wreaths

I was giving a poetry seminar earlier this week, and we got onto the subject of hair in Robert Browning’s poetry, and then, hair as a gift. I had a full text of ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ to hand, and was able to read out Elizabeth Barrett (Browning to be):

I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say
"Take it." My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow's trick. I thought the funeral-shears
Would take this first, but Love is justified, ---
Take it thou, --- finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.

One of the students in class spoke of her repugnance to cut hair, even her own on the hairdresser’s floor, seeing it as dead stuff that should be swept away out of sight. All this made me think about hair bracelets: John Donne’s ‘subtile wreath of haire, which crownes my arme’ and, more famously, that ‘bracelet of bright haire about the bone’ (‘The Funeral’ and ‘The Relique’, of course). The word ‘relics’ will tend to crop up in later references, perhaps partly because of that poem.

As a lover’s token, the bracelet of hair lasted through millenia. Here’s a disappointed lover in Mrs. Manley’s Lucius (1717):

(…) The fleeting Moments bore her Truth away,
And only I am left to speak her Falsehood;
An hated Evidence of broken Faith.
And yet some Proof remains;
[Pulls a Bracelet from his Arm.
This Bracelet's of her Hair, wove with her Hand,
Which, to the Present, gave a double Value;
View well the Clasp, see her fair Self enshrin'd,
The Altar where my constant Vows I paid:
These were the Gifts she gave me with her Heart.
Why do I still such worthless Toys retain,
When the chief Jewel is recall'd?
Why yet (as sacred Relicks of our Love)
Worship the Shrine of an apostate Fair?
Hence, vain Remembrancers of past Delight,
[Stamps upon the Bracelet and Picture.

His beloved wove it herself. But some of the surviving examples are of such extraordinary craftsmanship, that one has to wonder if a professional maker wasn’t sometimes used.

The Victoria and Albert has just one in its online collection,

but 19th century examples can be found in abundance on commercial antique jewelry sites like

(click on ‘Victorian Hair Jewelry’ in the left hand pane). My image is snipped from the Museum of London’s site, probably with as much permission as the bad Baron in Pope’s poem had for raping Belinda’s lock. The bi-colour weave suggests that both the gentleman and his lady contributed, which makes it all the odder that he wears a wig. Did wigs make hair somehow more private, more intimate?

In Aston Cokain’s translation of Ovid’s Remedia Amoris, such a memento is one of the things the recovering lover must relinquish:

If by some sleight a Garter you have got
From her that will not love you, keep it not;
Or if you have a Bracelet of her hair,
Or any such like toy, them never wear …

Here is Foscaris (“A Gentleman of Quality, who longs for his Wife after he has parted with her”) in Edward Howard’s The Women’s Conquest (1671), deceiving himself, but incidentally letting us know which arm to wear such a thing on (if it wasn’t obvious, heart side, of course):

Ha, ha, ha, a Bracelet of a lock of Hair,
In colour much resembling my Wives: but
Such a trick on me, were to little purpose,
I'le tangle no more there---but now I think on't,
I have found the knack; as sure as I am made
Of flesh and blood, 'tis Melvissa courts me
For her self …

I'le pleasure her desire, and wear her favour.
[Puts it on his arm.
The Devil on't, it warms the vein that leads
To the Heart strangely; and 'tis love I feel
In abundance …

I assume that it was the Victorians themselves who finally completed the transformation of an amatory token (or sign of tortured erotic remembrance) into apparatus for that favourite mode of theirs, mourning. Robin Jaffee Frank, who curated a major exhibition of American miniatures, has written about this famous miniature (‘The Dead Bride’), with its woven sample of her hair,

and explains that while hair ‘has been used to represent loss in rituals of mourning the world over’, the ingenuity of its deployments in colonial and federal America could be bizarre: ‘it was chopped up or dissolved in pigment used to paint mourning miniatures, knotted in bracelets, or plaited in lockets’.

Through such extravagances, hair as a pleasing memento of a living person must gradually have become, in the main, a faintly grisly memento of the dead. Elizabeth Barrett’s sonnet captures an unexpected reversion to the former. But it took Donne to rejoice in both at once.


Decidedly Bookish said...

The Victorians actually made all sorts of hideous hair jewellery. There's loads on eBay.

Small said...

And, linking the two periods, a charming Augustan vignette from Kronenberger's "Kings and Desperate Men".

Lord and Lady Malborough were an oddly-matched pair: "the courtliest man of his generation had married its most abusive virago." However, "two anecdotes will convey something of what each felt toward the other."

"Of all [Lady] Sarah's charms, the Duke loved most her beautiful fair hair. One day, when he had offended her, she cut it off to annoy him and laid the shorn locks where he was sure to see them."

"Concerning this act, however, nothing was ever said by either the Duke or the Duchess. But after his death she found her hair carefully preserved in a cabinet where he kept what he held most precious; 'and at this point of the story, she regularly fell a-crying.'"

Adam Roberts said...

Hideous? The Victorians had a proper appreciation for the joy of hair, we might say (I'm growing a beard at the moment, and therefore feeling fairly Victorian). A high point not reached again until the musical Hair in the 1960s ...

Actually I agree with the tenor of Roy's post: there is something abject about hair, in the Kristevan sense of the word; something fascinating but also rather revolting.

DrRoy said...

'Small': that is an extraordinary anecdote. I wonder if it's true: it sounds like a tale of Vanbrugh-style marital rowing being worked over into a piece of Colley Cibber-style sentimentalism: slightly too eloquent. For months and months after my divorce, long golden brown filaments would float out of nowhere, coiling round jacket collars, furnishings, old cheque book stubs, etc, etc.
Adam - I quarter-heartedly began a LION database data-drilling for hair consciousness among Victorian poets. Browning seemed to me to be top, but Chadwyck-Healey doesn't let you gauge relative frequency, either against the total words recorded or a 19th century background sample: "Call yourself a computer database, do you?!"

Adam Roberts said...

Well, to slip my Victorianist hairy-hat on for a moment: and without actually going to the books, or indeed the databases, my gut feeling would be that Swinburne is the poet who mentions hair the most. For him it was an erotic thing; his semi-pornographic novel Lesbia Brandon is full of tall, powerfully built ladies with heads of superb flowing hair, and a deal of masochistic sex thrown in. But Browning is pretty hairy as well, I agree.

As for LION, and computer databases in general: the problem is ... they have no hair. Hairless machines, trying to understand the ways of us hairy humans. It's a losing wicket.

Small said...

Dr Roy: I wouldn't be at all surprised if we were seeing it through the lens of late C18th schmaltz, but it seems more a tale of Sarah's abject misery than her acceptance that her behaviour was bad, so maybe a bit too bitter for Cibber.

Kronenberger's a bit poor with his citations or I'd chase it up. At least the Lord and Lady Malborough never appeared in an episode of Blackadder the Third, I suppose, or we'd have a mental image of, say, the C18th equivalent of Christine and Neil Hamilton to have to exorcise before we could discuss them.